The Amazing Union Chapel Double Team

Last week we got the chance to go see two very different bands on consecutive nights, both at the same venue – the Union Chapel in Islington. Having never been to this venue we didn’t quite know what to expect, other than it has a small capacity of only 800 people which is one of my key requirements for seeing any band these days. We did bump into some folks at Nina’s birthday party who said it was amazing, and that we should sit up on the balcony rather than fight to get in the downstairs pews. Yes, that’s right, it’s all seated but there are no reserved seats. I was loving it already, as someone who feels that real fans who are prepared to get in line early should always be rewarded (in exactly the same way that airlines don’t reward you when you check your bags in early… why are they always the last bags out? I digress).

On entering the chapel, with its front tower currently shrouded in scaffolding, you have no sense of the size of it as the ticket desk is in a cramped entrance way, but head to the left or right and up the stairs to the front balconies and the place unfolds like a Tardis till you come onto the cavernous, yet somehow intimate, performance space of the chapel knave. We sat right on the front pews, at the front up by the stage – just a few metres away from the performance. The side angle isn’t ideal, but the closeness is wonderful, plus you get to sit and rest your arms on the stone ledge in front of you. From this vantage point we could see everyone crammed into the pews below, much closer than us but arguably a lot less comfortable. Looking up you see the other balcony pews all around, and the lofty roof above in all its ornate glory. What a place to see a gig.

First up was Iron & Wine, featuring the soulful southern croonings and skillful guitar of Sam Beam. I’ve been a fan of Iron & Wine since an encounter in Fix years ago in Williamsburg, but this is the first chance I’ve had to see him in action, and it was worth the wait, especially in such an amazing venue. Beam started with a totally acapella rendition of one of his songs, which entranced the audience from the get go. Then he moved onto solo guitar, before being joined by a single backing instrumentalist to fill out the parts on some of his more complex melodies. The playlist escapes me right now, but he did cover off most of my favourite tracks, at times leaving us almost in tears. An amazing singer and well worth a listen.

Next up was a slight change of pace, seasoned Welsh singer Tom Jones singing the entirety of his new album ‘Praise and Blame‘. Given the gospel leanings of his latest offering this was a highly appropriate venue, and from the moment Jones came out in front of his (mostly 50+) audience he set a lot of store by that with his between song banter. With his shock of pure white hair, the now 70 Jones still sets the heart racing on his fans, though no knickers were (perhaps thankfully) thrown, and his voice swept teh rest of us along – the man can sing. Another great gig, only slightly let down by his decision to play any classic Jones songs as part of an encore, instead repeating one of his earlier Praise & Blame songs.

So a great week for gigs, and another new favourite London venue located. One of these days I might start actually loving London.. who knows.

And as a brief re-cap of what I’ve been up to in the last month or so since the last post.. There was a brief trip to Israel that was absolutely stunning (some pics here) – Jerusalem is a must see, followed by a long weekend in Barcelona over my birthday. In between those we fitted in a very lovely canoeing trip down the River Wye, which didn’t result in hypothermia for a change, but did result in a broken exhaust for the second time this year. Ah, car ownership. Pip pip.

Charlotte Gainsbourg @ Shepherds Bush Empire

Last night we went to see Charlotte Gainsbourg sing for the first time in London. At a fairly busy Shepherds Bush Empire, a crowd that consisted of a large proportion of French speakers waited in anticipation for the actress daughter of the famous singer to show us her own skills. As you might expect, they weren’t quite up to the high bar Serge set, but Charlotte has created her own style to set herself apart and it works well.

The crowd responded well to tracks such as Master’s Hands and the excellent IRM, which work best with Charlotte’s soft voice, but it was for covers of her dad’s songs that the crowd went wild – especially a finale of Couleur Cafe. The singing shadow of Serge Gainsbourg is hard to avoid if you’re his only heir, but maybe it’s best to embrace your heritage at times. As Charlotte herself said in a recent interview when asked who she would invite to her dream dinner party?: “Ghosts. Yvan, my children and my father, because they never met.”

Flight of the Conchords @ Hammersmith Apollo

Kiwi Splendour – Jemaine & Bret in action (more pics)

From the very first moment that Bret & Jemaine, better known as Flight of the Conchords, took to the packed, ecstatic crowd at Hammersmith Apollo we knew we were in for a treat. Sporting home-made cardboard box heads the expectation was for We are Robots, but instead they launched straight into Too Many Dicks (On the Dancefloor), giving Arj Baker – Dave from the show & tonight’s support – the chance to show his rap chops. The crowd lapped it up and every other classic song the Kiwi duo rolled out, whether they were pitch perfect or slightly off with hilarious recovery. One surprise though was quite how potent Jemaine is. That man can deliver an accent, and a sexy pose, like no-one else in comedy today – with the possible exception of Matt Berry. Even Bret’s talented musical delivery & banter seemed sometimes to be playing second fiddle to the ‘llama faced’ god.

All the crowd pleasers had been delivered by the end of the almost two hour set, no mean feat when you’re two guys on stage all the time. We Are Robots (with Jemaine’s amazing Schwartzenegger impersonation), Hurt Feelings, Woo Song, Business Time, Carol Brown (with Bret as all the exes) and a finale of epic mock-rock God proportions with Bowie and finally Sugalumps. Boy, did they give us sugalumps. Especially the lucky front row who received Bret in full effect as he clambered into the crowd. In between the fan friendly songs the guys took time to regale us with stories from their tour, involving the hilarity of muffins and elevators delivered with deadpan perfection.

A perfect night, with the only downside being the ridiculous difficulty in getting tickets when they first went on sale. I believe the gig sold out in three minutes, not helped by a ‘maximum’ of six tickets per person. Six! By the 5th gig the Conchords announced the guys had sensibly started asking for photo ID and will-call picket for everyone, but this was for Wembley Arena rather than the relative intimacy of Hammersmith. Something really needs to be done about the touts scalping their profits, not only the ones outside, but the corporate off-shoots of companies such as TicketMaster who encourage people to tout and re-sale tickets to profit from real fans. ID pickup is likely the best solution and it really can work, as I saw earlier in the month at Thom Yorke’s Atoms for Peace gig in New York. That aside, the extra money spent was worthwhile (see, I’m part of the problem…) I just wish it had gone to the men who deserved it.

The Conchords gave us an amazing night and showed us that New Zealand isn’t all Hobbits. There are Elves and Maoris as well. Sexy ones at that.